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Trust Issues

As a reader, I love characters with backbone.  Nothing annoys me more than a heroine who is nice to EVERYONE–even the people who repeatedly blow her off, insult her, or try to hurt her–like the writer is afraid that if the heroine dares to stand up for herself, the reader will think she’s mean.  Standing up for yourself isn’t spiteful–it’s a basic survival instinct. But as a writer, I sometimes fall into the too-nice-to-be-true trap.  How can I be sure the reader will agree that Harmony is justified in having Melissa’s car stolen and crushed because Melissa slept with her boyfriend?  (Not a real example–I would never name a character Harmony.)  Maybe I should tone it down a little.  Maybe I should tone it down a lot.  Maybe I should get rid of the scene altogether and skip to the part where Harmony and Melissa bond over margaritas at the beachside bar. What can I say–I have trust issues. But I needed to get over them, so I went to the best source of help I had–my bookshelf.  Some of my favorite books feature heroines who aren’t just tough–they’re downright abrasive at times.  How were the authors portraying these women in a way that still allowed readers to connect with them?  I pulled a couple of books off the shelf so I could investigate. Rachel’s Holiday, by Marian Keyes, follows Rachel’s recovery from drug and alcohol addiction.  While under the influence, Rachel did some pretty bad things–bad enough that she lost her job, her best friend, and her boyfriend.  And yet, I loved her from page one.  Why?  (1) The story begins just after Rachel has nearly ODed and is getting checked in to an inpatient treatment center.  It’s hard not to have sympathy for a character who has hit bottom. (2) The story is not told in chronological order.  It’s only as Rachel starts to come to terms with her addiction that she faces the things she did while under the influence.  By the time I realized the extent of her mistakes, I was much too attached to give up on her.  It also helped that the events were filtered through Rachel’s new, more mature standards of behavior. Sugar Beth Carey, from Susan Elizabeth Phillips’s Ain’t She Sweet,  grew up selfish and spoiled.  She influences the entire high school into ostracizing the half-sister she resents, and when a teacher threatens to reveal one of her more unsavory actions to her parents, she tells a lie that gets him fired.  But the story begins fifteen years later, after Sugar Beth has matured and realized just how damaging her actions were.  She returns to her hometown friendless, boyfriendless, and nearly penniless.  Her former teacher and her half-sister are the town’s leading citizens, and you know they’re going to make Sugar Beth pay for every single offense with interest.  Sugar Beth is the underdog, and it’s hard not to root for the underdog. Did everyone love the main characters in Rachel’s Holiday and Ain’t She Sweet?  Probably not.  But the books appealed to enough people that they both made it to the best-seller lists. So instead of trying to make sure everyone in the universe loves my heroine all the time, when I sit down to revise my manuscript, I’ll simply try to make sure she is the kind of strong, capable character I love.  In the end, that’s the best that I can do. Do you have reader trust issues?  How do you deal with them?

70 responses to “Trust Issues”

  1. Elisa Beatty says:

    Oh, yes, Shoshana–as I was reading the beginning of your post, I was thinking about Sugar Beth (whom I adored, too…though I’d have hate hate hated her in high school). Redemption is the very best story in the world!

    Other tough heroines I’ve loved: Annique in Joanna Bourne’s Spymaster’s Lady, Katniss in The Hunger Games, the heroine of Sherry Thomas’s Private Arrangements, the former prostitutes in Mary Balogh’s A Precious Jewel and No Man’s Mistress…

    Characters can do awful things, as long as they have human motivations for it, and a basic decency that shines through and overpowers any bad stuff they’ve done. A little “save the cat” goes a long way (how can you not sympathize with Katniss when she went into the arena to protect her beloved sister?) The complexity adds depth and humanity and makes us *care*.

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    • Shoshana Brown says:

      Great examples, Elisa. I loved Gigi in Private Arrangements and I totally understood why she made the decision she did even if it wasn’t, strictly speaking, the right thing to do. And I also think that book benefited from the nonlinear structure so that you got to know the mature Gigi before the younger Gigi was introduced.

      And Katniss–yes–how can you not love Katniss.

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      • Elisa Beatty says:

        Good point about Gigi being more mature when we first meet her. Had I watched her do the nasty things she does in linear time, I probably wouldn’t have liked her so much.

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    • Misty Dietz says:

      I have Spymaster’s Lady on my shelf! I’d better crack it open. 🙂

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  2. Karen Cote says:

    I am so glad you brought this up. I LOVED Ain’t She Sweet and all of SEP’s books. I’m not sure all readers demand that we do hold back. I think not only do they want less perfect heroines, I believe they are being deprived of it because the rules around campus seem to suggest through critique groups and contests they are not desirable. To me, these flaws build the richness of characters.

    Thanks for sharing and sorry if I sounded a little zealous. It’s a topic that will get many varied responses, I’m sure.

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    • Shoshana Brown says:

      It’s definitely not all readers, it’s just that little, irrational part of us (okay, maybe just me) that wants to make everyone happy all the time. But I’m getting better at suppressing that part of me as time goes on. 🙂

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    • Karen, You hit on a point. Flaws. We’re all flawed and I making our characters flawed makes them human. We can connect.

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  3. Denise Pattison says:

    I haven’t read the two books you mentioned but one of the every first books that made me think I was going to hate the heroine was The Shattered Rose by Jo Beverly.

    Jehanne cheats on her husband, Galeran, when he’s off fighting in the Crusades, his way of asking God for a child since he and his wife were childless for years.

    Galeran comes home from the Crusades to find Jehanne has an infant daughter and his home is under the control of his wife’s lover and the father of her bastard daughter.

    After years fighting in the Crusades, he now has to fight for the love of his wife and his home. A true tear jerker of a story.

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  4. Laurie Kellogg says:

    Oh, Shoshana, you cited one of my favorite books of all time. Ain’t She Sweet is SEP’s very best! You’re so right. Writing an anti-heroine is really tough, but you end up with such an amazing character.

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    • Shoshana Brown says:

      Yes–it’s one of my favorite books too. Even my mom, who generally refuses to read romance novels, liked it.

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  5. Morgan Wyatt says:

    Shoshana,
    I appreciate characters with difficult lives because without the problems you have a boring story. I was recently slammed by a reader who objected that I started a story with a woman in a troubled marriage wistfully thinking about her old boyfriend, even to the point of dreaming about him. I knew her husband was cheating on her and would leave her. The reader was upset with my portrayal. I thought about changing the intro, but I didn’t because it would destroy the whole story. Not every reader has to like every story.

    Morgan

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    • Misty Dietz says:

      Good point, Morgan! I’ve received feedback on my story that made me have second thoughts (and thirds, and fourths..) but no one knows our characters like we do. 🙂

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    • Shoshana Brown says:

      Absolutely–you can’t write a story everyone will love. I have sometimes found though that readers were having trouble connecting with my characters because, although they were wonderful, sympathetic people inside my head, I wasn’t getting enough of that onto the page. That’s why it’s nice to get multiple opinions, but in the end, the best judge of what’s working or not in your manuscript is you.

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  6. Tamara Hogan says:

    I think we, as romance writers, sometimes fall into the trap of equating “heroines we love” with “heroines who are good.” LOVE and GOOD are words whose meaning sometimes overlaps, but not always. Beware the false equivalency, which I find BO-RING! and frankly limiting as a reader, writer and as a woman.

    Write me a three-dimensional villian I can feel sorry for. Write me a heroine who’s an unrepentant, galaxy class bitch. Write me, as Anne Stuart does so deliciously, a debauched assasin hero whose early motivations put the heroine in real danger. Write me REAL PEOPLE, who are messy, make poor decisions, and are not always good, and but who come out the better for having met each other. Take some of these chances, and I’ll read you forever.

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    • Shoshana Brown says:

      >> I think we, as romance writers, sometimes fall into the trap of equating “heroines we love” with “heroines who are good.”

      Exactly.

      For some reason, I don’t have this problem with secondary characters. I write great, flawed secondary characters. 🙂

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      • I’ve done this, too. Here’s a trick:

        Write a few chapters, and then switch characters. Make your fascinating, well-rounded secondary character your lead. Stick your former heroine in the bridesmaid’s seat.

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        • Shoshana Brown says:

          That’s a good idea.

          Of course, it would mean throwing out my outline and redoing it. Which, I suppose, is not a big deal, except that the scientist part of me is screaming about inefficiencies and wondering why I can’t just plan everything out perfectly from the beginning.

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  7. I love characters that need fixing. Whether it’s a tortured hero, a person that needs to be taken down a notch, and even one that is sweet and who gets bitched slaped and grows from it. Sweetness can be a flaw.

    As someone mentioned before, there seems to be a rule that we have to write likeable characters from page one. I don’t think that true. In a blurb (or contest synopsis), we can let our readers know they’re going to be reading at a character who is sweet and will grow because…. JMO

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    • Shoshana Brown says:

      >> As someone mentioned before, there seems to be a rule that we have to write likeable characters from page one. I don’t think that true.

      I have to feel some sort of connection to the heroine to want to keep reading, but that connection doesn’t necessarily have to be like. Maybe I see some of myself in her or I’m just curious about what will happen to her.

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  8. liz talley says:

    One of my pet peeves, too, Shoshana. And for me it’s not about good. Plenty of characters who are seriously flawed are good deep down inside. They don’t kick kittens or trip nuns. It’s more about weakness to me. I hate a weak character who lets everyone walk all over her. I like a heroine who will punch you in the mouth. Seriously. I don’t like milquetoast (did I spell that right?) Can’t stand it.

    In my third book, my heroine is a little tough, for good reason, and many of my comments on that book were readers who said they didn’t like the heroine. She was bitter. Um. Yeah. She was. By the end of the book, she’d learned to forgive and love. Can’t really start her off as emotionally healthy and sweet, can I? But she was my favorite. Still is my favorite character I’ve written.

    And SEP Ain’t She Sweet? is one of my favorites too. Loved seeing the motivations behind SugarBeth, and that one scene where she finds Winnie sitting on her daddy’s lap, I cried like a baby. I mean I felt really hurt. SEP is a master at jerking the reader around and it’s a good ride.

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    • Rita Henuber says:

      *I like a heroine who will punch you in the mouth.*
      Now I know why your liked my story.

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    • Shoshana Brown says:

      >> SEP is a master at jerking the reader around and it’s a good ride.

      So true. I just reread Dream a Little Dream. There’s a certain scene in that book that always makes me cry, but this time, I was crying by the time I finished the first page. Note to self–it’s dangerous to read SEP on pregnancy hormones.

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  9. kelly fitzpatrick says:

    I hope you’re not telling me it’s wrong to steal the car of the slut who slept with your boyfriend and have the car crushed.

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  10. Rita Henuber says:

    What is story ? Conflict! Ain’t She Sweet has it and a universal theme we can all relate to. We went to HS and had the experience with the evil people.
    When we can put a flawed character into conflict in a story we can all relate to…. Well I think it’s called a good book.

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    • Shoshana Brown says:

      >> When we can put a flawed character into conflict in a story we can all relate to…. Well I think it’s called a good book.

      Absolutely.

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  11. Amanda Brice says:

    Great post, Shoshana.

    I think the crux of it is character growth. I love a flawed heroine who I can hate at the start of the story but love by the end. Another good example (besides Rachel and Sugar Beth) is Fredericka Mercedes Hildebrand Ware (Frede to her friends) from “The Devil in the Junior League” by Linda Francis Lee. Gawd, how I thought I was going to hate her, but by the end I was actually rooting for her.

    Flawed characters can be a lot of fun, but I need to see character growth, or at least a hint that there will be character growth by the end (maybe there’s one endearing characteristic), otherwise the book can quickly become a wallbanger.

    Take “4 Blondes” by Candace Bushnell. I can’t even begin to tell you how much I HATED that book. I think I made it through maybe 1 1/2 or 2 stories before I gave up for good. Those characters were so unpleasant, with absolutely no redeeming qualities whatsoever.

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    • Shoshana Brown says:

      >> Another good example (besides Rachel and Sugar Beth) is Fredericka Mercedes Hildebrand Ware (Frede to her friends) from “The Devil in the Junior League” by Linda Francis Lee.

      Just based on her name, I know I have to read that book. 🙂
      Thanks for the rec.

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  12. Kim Law says:

    I wondered as I started reading Ain’t She Sweet if SEP could really make me love this heroine. She was once the exact type I hated! But I had my suspicions she could pull it off. After all, we’re talking about SEP here 🙂 And sure enough, I loved Sugar Beth as much as all of her other heroines!

    I’ve had a really hard time learning to make my heroines likable enough in the openings. They aren’t pushovers, probably more on the opposite spectrum, and I have gotten lots and lots of negative comments about them over the years. But hopefully I’ve finally gotten it figured out. It certainly isn’t easy, but I’ve also learned that I just can’t make everyone love them. I’m okay with that. I just have to remember to make sure they’re likable enough that some people will love them! 😉

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    • I have the same problem, Kim. I love my heroines, but based on contest feedback, the feeling isn’t universal. 🙁

      I’m slowly coming to understand that my favorite romances are the ones in which I not only relate to the heroine but also like walking in her shoes, but not because she’s perfect. Perfect is boring to me. Sometimes it’s because she’s so screwed up that I envy how far she’s gone to the dark side while still retaining her moral center and sense of self. The villain with a heart of gold gets me every time. Like in Alias — the hot blonde villain Sark was so much hotter and more interesting once I realized how conflicted he was.

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    • Shoshana Brown says:

      Sugar Beth was the type I hated too, but SEP had me from page one.

      And, from the good news you’ve gotten lately, it certainly sounds like you’ve figured out how to make your heroines likable in the opening pages. 🙂

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  13. I think I enjoy abrasive heroines and redemption stories because I was perceived as “the good girl” all of my life. Little do they know there lurks a dark side within (thus, my stories about serial killer villains…). Anyway, I like being able to live vicariously through bad girl heroines, but they definitely have to have redeeming qualities. And I love seeing their growth arc – so many more possibilities there when they start off “bad but likeable.”

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    • Shoshana Brown says:

      >> I think I enjoy abrasive heroines and redemption stories because I was perceived as “the good girl” all of my life. Little do they know there lurks a dark side within (thus, my stories about serial killer villains…).

      Me too. Well, except about the serial killer villain part–I don’t think I could pull that off. 🙂

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  14. As a reader I adore seriously flawed, broken characters because their transformation by book’s end is usually so dramatic. When I was in college I read one of Sandra Brown’s TEXAS! books where the heroine was a liar. I loved this character because she was messy but so amazingly real. As a writer, I’m still all about broken people in need of hope and healing. I even wrote an entire book called THE BROKEN. 🙂 Thanks, Shoshana, for the great topic!

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    • Shoshana Brown says:

      I read those TEXAS books so many times in High School…my local library did not have a large romance section.

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  15. Though it’s been a long while since I read ‘Rachel’s Holiday’, I’ll never forget the shock of discovering that the holiday was not going to be ‘south of France’ type vacation, but a month drying out. Rachel was flawed in so many ways, yet was human throughout. If readers want some pollyanna, it’s Enid Blyton they should be reading. If they want fascinating characters who actually have a story to tell, they need characters with warts and all.

    As writers, it takes courage to expose those warts 😉

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    • Shoshana Brown says:

      >> As writers, it takes courage to expose those warts

      So true–but it’s worth it.

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  16. “It’s hard not to have sympathy for a character who has hit bottom.”

    Yes…unless that character is a total dick or an immature brat who shows no signs of remorse.

    I love a dark character with a heart of gold. I also love a gold character with a heart of darkness.

    I love gray characters, period.

    Like Deputy US Marshal Raylan Givens…..and we get more of him TONIGHT!

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    • Amanda Brice says:

      I think gray characters are a lot of fun and make for such a more interesting story.

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    • Shoshana Brown says:

      >> “It’s hard not to have sympathy for a character who has hit bottom.”
      Yes…unless that character is a total dick or an immature brat who shows no signs of remorse.

      Yeah–that’s an important caveat. 🙂

      Tell me more about this Deputy US Marshal Raylan Givens.

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      • OMG. I’m pretty sure another Ruby turned me onto Justified. Whoever that was, BLESS YOUR HEART! It’s my current favorite show, vying with Firefly and Alias for my all-time favorite drama.

        To get you started, there’s this:
        http://lrg103.zpcdn.com/0/5785/37028463.f50091.jpg

        Just watch the FX channel tonight at 10 and you’ll see what I’m talking about. It’s mostly episodic, though there’s a clear and compelling series arc, too. You won’t miss too much by picking it up tonight, though you WILL want to go back and watch the old episodes.

        The show’s based on a character developed by Elmore Leonard, and my God, is it a good show. I’m constantly stunned by how beautifully episodes are put together. I learn a lot from it. And I’m just in love with Raylan! I hate the woman he’s with. Ugh. I just want her to go away so he can find someone worthy of him.

        Luckily, Mark loves the show and Raylan as much as I do!

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        • Shoshana Brown says:

          Just added it to my netflix queue. I have to watch shows starting with episode 1–I’m weird like that.

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  17. Vivi Andrews says:

    I’ve always liked STRONG and REAL more than NICE and that comes through in my writing, but readers don’t always agree that the bitch needs love too. Just look at all the “Good story + unlikeable heroine = 1 star” reviews I’ve gotten for SERENGETI STORM. Or maybe it ain’t what you do but the way that you do it and I’m just not there yet in skill.

    I guess I don’t trust the reader to give the bad girls a chance, because I took that risk with Storm and got smacked for it. Once bitten…

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  18. I LOVE SEP’s Ain’t She Sweet, Shoshana! Of course, I love pretty much anything by SEP, but Ain’t She Sweet really hit home that writers can write a seriously flawed character and make me root for them.

    There’s a Catherine Anderson book, a historical romance called “Simply Love” where the hero is so selfish and ruthless at the beginning that I really wanted to hate him. But Catherine Anderson had a way of redeeming him so completely that by the end I was totally in love with that character.

    Give me a real, flawed, messy character any day of the week. I much prefer them to the “perfect” ones.

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  19. Diana Layne says:

    Strong, flawed heroines, like them, but I’m worried now my Mafia Princess is too strong and flawed, just got a reject that she’s not sympathetic enough and I swear I tried to make the reader see through her POV and understand why she’s doing what she’s doing. Still must be missing the mark. sigh.

    So wonderful to read when it’s done right, so hard to do it right.

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    • Shoshana Brown says:

      Mafia Princess, huh? I’m intrigued.

      And that one R is just one person’s opinion. But if you’re worried she’s not sympathetic enough, maybe it would help to set it aside for a little while so you can read through it with a fresh perspective and see where you might be able to help the reader connect with her. Or have some trusted readers take a look and do some brainstorming together.

      You’re right–it’s wonderful to read when it’s done right, but it’s not easy.

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  20. Oh, Shoshana, this is an absolutely fantastic post! I love that you have analyzed this. Way to go, you!

    I completely agree. Sometimes the payoff in a book or movie happens when the selfish heroine changes throughout. We see her grow and repent. But sometimes it’s really hard to pull that off. If we don’t like a heroine from the get-go, we often will not give her the chance to grow and make amends, even though we know (or we HOPE) that is what she will do. But by starting the story later, at that changing point, we get to see the payoff reveal itself alongside the reason we need the payoff in the first place.

    Bravo, Ruby Sis! Love, love, love this post!
    ~D~

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  21. Gwynlyn MacKenzie says:

    Great post, Shoshana. Flaws make characters human, redemption makes them acceptable, but it is the road to redemption that makes us cheer and pull for them. I wanted to pop Sugar Beth in the teeth. And Meg Koranda had me ready to throw the book against the wall. Both books are on my keeper shelf. 😉

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    • Shoshana Brown says:

      That reminds me–I still haven’t read Meg’s book. I am WAY too far behind on my reading.

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      • Shoshana Brown says:

        Although I did sneak in the beginning of Her Own Best Enemy just before dinner…and I have a feeling I might have to finish it tonight.

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  22. […] loved how strong, smart, and unapologetically pragmatic she was.  I’ve written before about my deep, deep hatred for heroines who are too nice, like the author is afraid that if the heroine dares stand up for herself, the reader will think […]

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